Bibi’s Choice
The case for unity government and modest ambitions in Israel.


Mario Loyola

After Tuesday’s confusing elections in Israel, one thing is clear: Right-wing parties now have a commanding majority of the seats in Israel’s parliament. This puts the conservative former prime minister Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu in the driver’s seat–despite the fact that his Likud party, the leading right-of-center party, came in second to the leading left-of-center party.

Pay attention, because a lot is riding–for Israel and for America–on what happens next. Basically, Israel faces a choice between a unity government and a government of right-wing parties, and the choice could be up to Bibi. A unity government would mean sharing power at the top with current foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party (the aforementioned leading left-of-center party). That might not be so much fun for Bibi. But a right-wing government with Bibi firmly in control might not be much fun for anybody; Bibi aspires to be a Great Israeli, and may yet prove to be one, but this could be a time for modesty and limited goals–in Jerusalem and in Washington.

Bibi refuses to share the prime minister’s seat with Livni on a rotating basis, and has instead offered Kadima the two most valuable portfolios–foreign and defense. Livni and Bibi could both dig in their heels, but Israeli president Shimon Peres will hopefully nudge them toward compromise. That would be a worthy gift to Israel and its friends, leaving the Israeli government in a strong position to confront two major threats, Hamas and Iran.

Bibi campaigned on a promise of crushing Hamas: “A government under my leadership will overthrow the Hamas rule in Gaza and bring about a cessation of rocket fire.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there are two problems. First, the Israeli public has no desire to unleash the violence that would be necessary to destroy Hamas; second, nobody, least of all Israel’s military, wants to see the reimposition of military government on 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza. There may indeed be no choice in the end except to destroy Hamas, but it is far better for Hamas to prove that to a unity government than for Bibi to try to prove it himself.

Even more important is the question of Iran. According to Eran Lerman, a prominent Israeli analyst, “the preference for every Israeli decision-maker will be to operate in close coordination with the U.S. and its western allies in bringing robust measures to bear on the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu has reason to think that this will be facilitated if he presides over a broad-based government.”

Indeed he has. Netanyahu will need cover from the Obama administration for any policy of crushing Hamas and confronting Iran–and the Democrats have never liked him. Former U.S. envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross remembers a sense of “collective dread” within the Clinton administration when Bibi became the Israeli prime minister in 1996, because the Clinton team “would now be dealing with people who did not see the Palestinians as partners and who still could not publicly accept the principle of land for peace.” Clinton officials faulted Bibi for responding only to immediate political pressures, and for his perceived lack of long-range thinking. At one point Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger were even ready to declare publicly that they could not work with him.

For the Clinton administration, a collective sigh of relief replaced collective dread when Labor leader Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in May 1999. But just a year later, Arafat rejected Clinton’s peace deal at Camp David, proving that an unreformed Fatah could not be a partner for peace. Bibi had been right after all. Months later, the so-called Second Intifada–a systematic campaign of terrorist attacks inside Israel–proved that the land-for-peace formula was illogical, if not suicidal, when executed in that order. Once again, Bibi had been right. The Oslo peace process came crashing down, not because of Bibi, but because of its own fatally flawed premises. It was that failure of liberal policies–in Israel and in Washington–that eventually pushed the Israeli electorate to the right.

Hamas supporters were still dancing for joy at the hundreds of Israeli civilians killed in suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and throughout Israel when, in April 2001, rocket fire from the Gaza strip began–and never stopped. In the three years since Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza, the rocket and mortar fire has risen dramatically. There were nearly 1,000 hits inside Israel in 2006, about 1,700 in 2007, and more than 3,000 in 2008 (despite a six-month “ceasefire” in the last year). All the rockets were intentionally targeted at Israeli civilians. By the time a shipment of powerful Soviet-designed “Grad” rockets made its way through the tunnels into Gaza at the end of November 2008 and Hamas accelerated its fire, Israelis were clamoring for a response.